Six months after the horrors of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans staged Carnival 2006 to show the world that America’s most fascinating city was wounded but not defeated.
The Greatest Free Show on Earth was more modest than we were used to, and the hotels were filled with FEMA evacuees rather than tourists — if they were open at all.
One concession was that the 2006 parade routes were largely standardized along St. Charles Avenue. But the important thing was to show the world — and ourselves — that celebration had triumphed over storm.
New Orleans today is in better shape than it was in 2006. The city has been crimped by COVID-19 and harassed by Hurricane Ida, but it’s not a flooded wasteland, waiting to be loved back to life.
So it was disheartening to hear Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration suggest last week that the city may seek to standardize parade routes again.
“We have concerns regarding the bandwidth and capacity of our first-responders, who have been under intense strain throughout the pandemic,” according to the city’s communications director, Beau Tidwell.
The mayor has done a good job, often under withering criticism, keeping the city safe during the pandemic. Some of her ideas for ensuring a safe Carnival, like vaccine and test mandates for riders, would be welcome and might help assure visitors reluctant to travel.
And the news that Carnival 2022 will go forward, barring unforeseen setbacks, is certainly encouraging.
“The good news is, we are on track for the return of Mardi Gras in 2022,” Tidwell wrote. “Unless we see a dramatic turn for the worse in our COVID numbers, Mardi Gras will roll once again!”
But standardizing parades' routes is a big concession.
It would mean that Zulu would skip its traditional toast at Gertrude Geddes Funeral Home on Jackson Avenue. Thoth would not be able to begin its procession on Henry Clay and fulfill its mission to entertain “Shut-Ins” along its route. And most significantly, it would knock Endymion off Orleans Avenue and Canal Street and force its megafloats to navigate the more constricted streetscape Uptown.
It would also mean corralling spectators into a smaller footprint at a time when medical advice suggests crowds should be more spread out.
A better solution would have been for the mayor to work with the krewe leadership and come up with a more modest regimen of route adjustments that would allow krewes to preserve the most significant unique features of their routes.
New Orleans first responders deserve our respect and their needs should be factored into the 2022 Carnival schedule. The city police department, maligned in so many things in the decade and a half since Katrina, is great at crowd management. And it’s always fun to see cellphone videos of the cops and the crowd enjoying Mardi Gras in harmony.
Unwisely in the years since Katrina, the city has allowed the force to shrink by about a quarter. And in the middle of an election campaign in which crime is a dominant issue, there is little talk about how to build it back. The 11th hour curtailing of the Krewe of Boo parade route over the weekend is an unwelcome symptom of the staffing shortage.
But 2022 is not 2006. New Orleans needs to show the world that it’s back in full flower. It needs to refill its hotel rooms, not with evacuees but with joyful tourists.
We need a Carnival that is as bold and brilliant as we can make it.